The Hellenistic philosopher Philo of Alexandria made this compelling analogy in his essay, Every Good Man is Free (Quod Omnis Probus Liber Sit V.26):
I have before now seen among the competitors in the pancratium, at the public games, one man inflicting all kinds of blows both with his hands and feet, all of them with great accuracy of aim and omitting nothing which could conduce to victory, and yet after at time fainting and desponding, and at last quitting the arena without the crown of victory; and the other who has received all his blows, being thoroughly hardened with great firmness of flesh, and being touch and unyielding, and filled with the true spirit of an athlete, and invigorated throughout his whole body, being like so much iron or stone, not at all yielding to the blows inflicted by the other, at last, by the endurance and resolution of his spirit, defeating the power of his adversary so as to obtain a complete victory.
And the condition of the virtuous man appears to me very much to resemble that of this person. For having thoroughly fortified his soul with strong and powerful reasoning, he so compels the man who is offering him violence to desist from weariness, before he himself can be compelled to do any thing contrary to his opinion of propriety. But perhaps this is incredible to those who do not know by experience that virtue is of the character that I have mentioned, just as that other case would be to those who have never seen the combatants in the pancratium. But nevertheless it is strictly true.
The physical contest called the pancratium was an ancient sport that combined boxing and wrestling. I suppose its closest modern equivalent would be our “mixed martial arts” contests of today; there were few rules to these bouts except that biting and eye-gouging were not allowed. Now what Philo is emphasizing here is the fortifying power of virtue. A man’s mastery of the masculine virtues protects him and shields him from the iniquities of the world, in the same way that a hardened fighter can absorb with resilience the blows of his opponent. The converse of this point is beyond dispute, as experience shows: he who pays no attention to the cultivation of the virtues is like a man who enters a plague ward in a hospital without having received any immunization for the disease. He is entirely exposed to harm. Virtue is a stabilizer, a rudder, and a guiding light: “For as folly is a light thing easily tossed about in every direction, so, on the contrary, wisdom is a well-established and immovable thing of a weight which is not easily agitated.”
And this is the reason why the wicked man, or the foolish man, is so vulnerable to the injustices of Fate. We should not be surprised at all that the truly wise man is far outnumbered by fools, wicked men, and lazy men. The majority will generally prefer indolence and amusement to industry. The virtuous man radiates goodness like a phosphorescent source; he emanates his qualities as the sun emits its rays. Whatever is beautiful, is exceedingly rare. Another reason why virtuous men are so rare is because they often find it more conducive to their peace of mind to withdraw from the main currents of society; they grow tired of the constant distractions and absurdities that are distressing features of modern life. The Greeks of antiquity talked about their “Seven Sages” or “Seven Wise Men”; and the fact that they felt the need to number them with digits less than those found on two hands, shows us just how few in number such men truly were.
Such wisdom, of course, was not confined just to the Greeks. Philo also talks about an Indian philosopher—he calls him a “gymnosophist,” indicating that he probably also practiced yogic exercises—named Calanus, who was also mentioned by the historian Arrian in his history of Alexander the Great. When the Macedonian king was in India, he heard the reputation of this great Indian thinker, and desired Calanus to accompany him on his campaigns. When Calanus refused this invitation, Alexander was incensed, and threatened to take him along by force; he was not accustomed to being refused. Philo says that Calanus sent Alexander a letter explaining himself in the following way:
Calanus to Alexander, Greetings.
Your friends are endeavoring to persuade you to apply force and compulsion to the philosophers of the Indians, though not even in their sleep have they beheld our actions. For you will be able indeed to transport our bodies from place to place, but you will not be able to compel our souls to do what they do not like, any more than you would be able to make bricks or timer utter words. We can cause the greatest troubles and the greatest destruction to living bodies.
Now we are superior to this power…there is no king nor ruler who will ever succeed in compelling us to do what we do not choose to do. And we are in no respect like unto the philosophers of the Greeks, who study speeches to deliver to a public assembly…our speeches which are short have a power different from that of our actions and secure for us freedom and happiness.
This is what Calanus wrote to Alexander the Great. While defiant, his words nevertheless have a noble ring; for nothing is more slavish than the debasement of flattery. He did not fear this powerful foreigner, who had brought all the world under his sway; if anything, he was all the more dismissive of the Macedonian. His attitude towards the impetuous Greek was something like, “Look at you, Alexander. You are not much more than a temporary irritant to our land; in a few years, you will be gone. But we, and our teachings, will still remain.” And so it proved to be.
Along these lines a story is told of the Greek philosopher Diogenes the Cynic. There are many anecdotes circulating from antiquity about his wisdom and calmness of mind, his tranquilitas animi. He was once captured by bandits who refused to offer him much food. He did not beg his captors for more nourishment, but endured his lot with measured determination. He then learned that he was to be sold as a slave, along with some other captives. Diogenes’s fellow captives were crushed by this news, but he gave them heart, saying, “Let go of being miserable. Take what fortune deals you, and adjust.” When Diogenes was brought up to the slave auction block, he was approached by a prospective purchaser. This rich man asked Diogenes, “So, what do you know?” The philosopher’s response was, “I know how to govern men.” This answer shows us just how great a man Diogenes was: he knew that wisdom and virtue were the keys to the governance of men, and he valued these things above all others. This was what he meant by his response.
No one can doubt the truth of this. Great men, men of wisdom and virtue, have something within them that radiates outwards like an inner light; external circumstances cannot extinguish this light. If anything, such adversity makes it shine even more brightly. And this is why we must always seek the company of such noble men, and shun any kind of association with the baser, meaner types. When Jason was putting together his crew of Argonauts, he made a point of selecting only the best, noblest, and most courageous types of men; he had no desire to pollute his band with the inclusion of pleasure-seekers or braggarts. He wanted only noble souls with him, not selfish individualists. For such types of men add nothing to the pursuit of great enterprises.
When we make the pursuit of masculine virtue our goal, we hammer out, plate by plate, our own personal suit of armor. It protects us from the blows and wounds of fate, just as Philo observed in the combats at the pancratium. Know that we are the blacksmiths of our souls. It is a lifelong task. We forge the metal, we temper the steel, we pound the rivets, and we hammer the plate. Let this be the focus of our training and education. This armor of virtue protects us, stiffens the resolution of the soul, and grants us the capability to pursue all noble and transcendent purposes.
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